October 25, 2002
Essay I for 24.00 at MIT
(Teacher Assistant: Peter Bach-y-Rita)
Arguably, the greatest challenge to faith in the omnipotent, omniscient, and fully good being ("God") is the problem of evil: There is so much evil in the world, so why does not God eliminate the evil? A number of solutions were proposed, with the main argument that life can only be meaningful if people have to fight against problems and have freedom to try different solutions, and that interference of God would cause people to rely on God instead of fighting the problems (evil) themselves. Assuming that this argument is plausible, as I do for this paper, another problem must be solved.
Justice and human rights appear to be the basic principles of civilized society. It is considered wrong to murder regardless of the expected utility of the murder. It is also generally accepted that the society has a moral duty to prosecute the murderer. Torture and murder of a child are clearly unjust and violate the child's rights, and so are generally considered to be wrong regardless of the good they will cause. Thus, it appears that God should not allow torture of children to happen even if the torture is necessary to enrich the life and bring enlightened happiness to all people. Since such torture happens daily, it may appear that God does not exist. A naïve solution is to argue that God merely lets children to be beaten as they scream in agony, instead of causing the beatings. However, what causes a choice in the mind to turn into action, and the physical state to turn into suffering? Physical laws appear to cause it, but physical laws are merely mathematical equations which themselves cannot cause anything, causation through laws requires a being to enforce the laws, and that being is God. Thus, God deliberately chose to enforce physical laws that caused the torture.
If violations of justice and human rights are inherently wrong, then the wrongness would be in the violation itself instead of just in the violator. Violations by God are violations and as such would be inherently wrong. Since God is always good and such violations occur, they are not inherently wrong (assuming that God exists).
If denial of inalienable rights is not inherently wrong, then why is it wrong? Would it be right to drug and torture a captured soldier to extract invaluable information? The answer is that denial of basic rights by people is wrong not because of the inherent wrongness but because of the great dangers of such denials and because of the inherent fallibility of humans.
Suppose that you see a person who has captured a young child. He tells you he is "creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, ... but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death one tiny creature" (from essay "Rebellion" in Reason and Responsibility) the child that he is holding. He then asks you for advice on whether to kill the child. How should you answer?
The child should live because her torture and death would be a real evil but the promise of making men happy in the end is an illusion. Even if he believes or believes that he knows that the torture will lead to human salvation he would still be unjustified because of fallibility of beliefs. In other words, the child should live regardless of the expected utility of her death.
Fundamental rights are those rights whose protection is essential for the society, so denying fundamental rights by human actions is inherently improper. As illustrated below, fundamental rights are preserved not for their own sake but because they are a necessary safeguard for the society.
A number of false reasons exists for killing people. Adolf Hitler believed that Jews undermine and destroy the society. Accordingly, to improve the society, he oversaw killing of up to six million Jews. Governments without respect for human rights tend to kill off or at least silence the opposition because the governmental objectives appear to be necessary goods and the opposition, if prevailed, would thus prevent the goods. However, the governmental objectives in such cases tend to be very harmful, and silencing the opposition prevents correction of the objectives and locks the society into mistaken actions and the suffering they will result into. What is the correct decision heuristic on killing people? To be correct, it must prevent the unnecessary suffering mentioned above. Suppose that the heuristic is to kill a person if only if one knows that the act will bring greater good. If knowledge is restricted to states of human mind in which the belief must be true simply because of the state of mind, then we know almost nothing since beliefs of different people, even beliefs that are held with certainty, often contradict. Otherwise, determination of knowledge can be based only on the belief of knowledge, and in any practical implementation of the heuristic, 'knowledge' would be replaced with 'belief of knowledge'. However, a dictator who kills many useful people is likely to believe that he knows what is good for the society. For example, Adolf Hitler believed that he knew that the final solution to the Jewish problem is to exterminate Jews. Thus, according to the heuristic, he was justified in his actions.
Since the heuristic above is unacceptable, the correct heuristic is not to murder people even if one knows that the murders are good for the society. This way, human rights are justified on purely utilitarian grounds. For example, since people tend to be selfish, a democratic government is essential to ensure that the government cares about the society. If the government has the power to censor, then the government through censorship can prevent essential changes to the society and can stop democracy by blocking ideas that oppose its policies. Moreover, heuristics on censorship would fail since the impact of an idea cannot be known with certainty and since censors (who evaluate the heuristic) are likely to be selfish. Thus, freedom of speech (absolute freedom from censorship) is a fundamental right.
Since God is infallible, the argument for human rights does not apply to God, so God is justified in enforcing physical laws that cause the child to die as long as the enforcement brings greater good. Thus, existence of God is compatible with human rights, and human rights must be protected regardless of whether God exists.
Some people believe that human rights and justice must be protected in and out of themselves. The reason usually cited for such beliefs is the deep feeling that human rights must be protected and that justice must be administered. Such feelings, however, must be fallible because different people hold contradictory beliefs. For example, most people strongly feel that absence of sexual intercourse before puberty is a fundamental protection for the children. Other people strongly feel that right of people, including children, to engage in loving and consensual relationships and in intimate physical interaction, such as sex, is fundamental. At least one of these groups of people should not trust their feelings. One can trust correct feelings and not trust wrong feelings, but that requires determination of which feelings are correct. To avoid the fallacy of circular reasoning by trusting feelings to decide whether the feelings are correct, such determination must be logical. Accordingly, every person should logically examine all beliefs that are based on feelings. (However, evidence for beliefs includes evidence that the beliefs are useful. For example, spiritual satisfaction from belief in God makes the belief useful and can thus be used as evidence to believe in God.)
Thus, the system of values must be logically examined. Ordinary logical principles only perform a simple manipulation of statements and thus cannot derive statements about values without relying on statements of human values--the system of values is like a variable about which statements can be made but whose value cannot be computed without some assignment. Thus, although ordinary logical principles can obtain derived values from basic, they cannot derive the basic system of values. The only other logical principle, being not ordinary in the sense that it cannot be computed be a simple computer program, is minimization of unexplainable: Whenever ordinary logical principles cannot resolve a question, whichever answer minimizes unexplainable is assumed. For example, ordinary logical principles cannot prove that patterns that occurred the past tend to occur in the future (see "An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding" by David Hume for details). Nevertheless, all people assume this since it minimizes the unexplainable. Similarly, minimization of unexplainable is needed to prove that some beings other than you can feel (or even exist).
A system that assigns different values to different people would leave the differential assignment unexplained. Moreover, since the values are basic, the differential assignment cannot be explained and thus must be rejected. An arbitrary discrepancy between what a person wants and what the person should do is also unexplainable and to be rejected. A system that assigns different importance to happiness at different times would leave the assignments unexplained. Thus, the system of values that achieves human desires and gives equal importance to all people minimizes the unexplainable. Since other basic systems of values do not minimize the unexplainable, they must be rejected.
Therefore, justice is a derived value that is explained because denial of justice is harmful to the society or at least has a potential to cause great harm. The strong feeling of justice can be explained as evaluation of evidence by the unconscious mind, which associates injustice with the horror it often causes. The feeling also causes fallacious explanations of justice. For example, justice is usually defined as a state where people receive what they deserve. Determination of what people deserve is often defined as what is just, leading to circular construction. By an alternative circular reasoning, what people deserve is determined by the good the people made since anything else would be unjust. Real justifications of rights and justice, however, are reduced to benefit to the society. Feeling of justice corresponds to evidence that 'justice' makes society efficient and thus happier. People deserve what maximizes happiness and the meaning of life. If justice is good, then justice is what is good for the society. Thus, God is justified in not using miracles to stop alleged injustice assuming that the absence of miracles brings a greater good.
Freedom is good since freedom feels wonderful and makes the life meaningful. Life must be meaningful since without a meaningful life people cannot appreciate life qualities and thus cannot be truly happy. People should try to achieve happiness since happiness is, by definition, what people want. However, true happiness should not be confused with the superficial one. For example, a person who wants to go on a suicide mission appears to decline happiness, but in reality may have great inner happiness from the service he gives to the society, and might suffer guilt for the rest of his life (be unhappy) had he declined the mission.
The apparent conflict between human rights and actions of God is based on misunderstanding about the justification of human rights. Human rights and justice are not important when taken in abstract and by themselves. However, fundamental rights must always be protected to prevent grave dangers to the society. Justice must be administered to give incentives and thus to cause people to do good and avoid evil. God is justified in causing the world to evolve according to physical laws if such action is necessary to make human life meaningful.